The Battle of Whiskey Hills

Anyone familiar with the Burt Lancaster comedy "The Hallelujah Trail," (I’m looking at you, Angie) will recognize the Battle of Whiskey Hills as a battle that never quite materializes, partly because the various warring factions somehow manage to avoid each other until they're all blinded by a sandstorm.  I thought of the scene as I worked on a chapter that was going to be called "The Battle of White Rock," but was changed at the last minute to "The Slaughter Pen."  Although there was bloodshed along White Rock Creek in 1869, both chapter titles were intended to be slightly ironic.  Groups of heavily-armed men crisscrossed the White Rock valley during the last week of May that year, but, fortunately, they never met up for a full-scale shootout.

While laboring over several chapters, I was reminded of movies or works of literature.  I began to wonder if the story of the death of a faithful Indian scout named White Lily might have been suggested by Kipling's "Gunga Din."  An Army vet named Patricia Burrell, who is a descendant of the White Lily clan, said it sounded like a true story to her and told me to keep looking.  I did, and it is, although there are a few key differences between the long-accepted tale and the truth.  

The photogenic ruin of Fort Churchill, an adobe fortress in the Nevada desert, summoned memories of the Gary Cooper version of "Beau Geste," with Cooper and Robert Preston and Ray Milland battling hostiles as well as a sadistic sergeant played by Brian Donlevy.  Major Edward McGarry of the California Volunteer Cavalry may not have been an active sadist, or looked much like Donlevy (He did look scary as hell, however) but he did once leave his troopers standing at attention all night holding the bridles of their horses, after he gave the order to dismount, and then passed out on the desert floor, dead drunk.  McGarry drank just as heavily afterward, and was suspected of being in an alcoholic stupor when he killed himself a few years after the incident in the desert, by slashing his own throat with a penknife.

"The Slaughter Pen" is the longest chapter in the Lovewell book because, for once, I had an embarrassingly rich stock of source material.  Washington County Deputy Sheriff Charles Murdock kept a journal of his travels through Republic and Jewell counties in the spring of 1869, which he published in the Western Advocate a few weeks after his return.  A group of colonists from Brooklyn wrote an open letter to the folks back home detailing their hair-raising adventures on the Plains.  Thomas Lovewell told what he remembered of that week-long series of clashes to Jewell County historians Winsor and Scarbrough only seven years after they happened.  A decade after that, Brooklyn colonist Ernest Ackerly filed an Indian depredation claim, in which he described one attack  from his unique vantage point, peering out of a wagon while a hundred Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and their Sioux allies chased the owners of the wagon, brothers William and Frank Frazier, back to the Brooklyn colonists' fort.  We also have Swedish* settler Martin Dahl's reminiscence, because he too filed a claim for reimbursement.  Finally, there is colonist Harry Wallin's memoir, written for the Belleville Telescope at the end of the century.

Thanks to these witnesses, we have a fairly clear picture of where everyone was and what most of them were doing between May 20 and June 2, 1869.  I can see now that I should have made a map for the chapter, like the amusingly-animated one in "The Hallelujah Trail," demonstrating why, although there never was a full-scale battle between Indians and settlers at White Rock, there almost was, and it would have been a slaughter.

There should also be an addendum to the story of the Ackerlys, who returned to New York after their ordeal.  Ernest Ackerly, whom we might today be tempted to diagnose with PTSD, turned to drink in his later years.  He Sobered up for a while, then made the mistake of opening a hotel for fellow alcoholics (You remember what our parents tell us - it’s our associates who lead us astray).  When he went back to the bottle a final time, his behavior became erratic. Among other antics, according to his friends, he purchased a money order and signed it "Grover Cleveland."  He went home one night, turned on all the gas jets without lighting them and closed all the windows.  Ernest Ackerly died of asphyxia at the age of forty-nine.

Why am I seeing Ray Milland again, arm-in-arm this time with Ingrid Bergman?

*The Dahls were from Norway

© Dale Switzer 2023